Our New Zealand North Island Adventure
Tuesday 27th February 2018
Arriving in Wellington after the short flight from Christchurch we were met at the airport by my wonderful friend Tash, who I've seen just twice in the last ten years after our friendship began as colleagues back in early noughties.
Tash and her husband Pete had very generously offered to host us in their flat under their house close to the city and the girls were very excited to meet their four boys (aged 4-12) and have someone else to play with for once on our travels!
We dumped the bags and the girls got to know Sam, Rupert, Jamie and Dominic. Nikki was instantly transported to memories of his own childhood - growing up as one of four boys - and happy dived around the garden playing cricket with the children whilst Tash and I enjoyed a cuppa in the garden.
We decided to head out for a walk around the harbour and take in some sights. We walked along the beach and visited the playground while the children chatted away. It was great that they all seemed to instantly get on and they were all entranced at the diving platforms, watching people jump in from a height to the water below.
They all begged and pleaded to be allowed to jump in too but we decided to walk further on and check out the mini festival happening at the waterfront. There was lots going on and we enjoyed the best ice cream ever sitting on the steps listening to the music in the late afternoon sunshine. Glorious. We soon caved in and let the children jump into the water before heading home cold, wet and tired and with only one injury to our collective children.
The following day we headed up the hill opposite the house to find the den building spot favoured by the boys, and it did not disappoint! The girls love a spot of den building and were soon climbing trees and fashioning a treehouse which soon became an army launcher from which pine cones were launched at the grownups!
We hopped on the bus down to the town to ride on the Wellington Cable Car, a super fun ride with lights that made the journey seem ultra futuristic! After a look around the museum we sat and watched the children play in the park. They had brought an arsenal of water guns and they were soon drenched as they battled between them.
We walked down through the botanic gardens, as the capital of New Zealand, Wellington may not be the country's biggest city but it has so much to offer with its mixture of culture, nature and town.
We headed to the nearby outdoor pool to take advantage of the great weather and the children enjoyed a splash around.
Our last full day with our lovely friends saw us head off to the museum of Te Papa for a few hours. We only managed to fit in a small amount of it but what we saw we loved, especially the giant squid video about the museum's prize specimen and the Maori exhibition.
Nikki and Pete headed off as they took all the children to the cricket - New Zealand vs Pakistan at the Westpac stadium giving Tash and me some lovely quiet time. Whilst the temptation to lie on a sofa drinking Tash's special blue slushies and eating our own body weight in Whittaker's was strong we decided to head down to the town for a dinner date.
We walked along the harbour eventually coming into town and enjoyed a few G&Ts at the Malthouse before heading for the most amazing food at Monsoon Poon, incredible menu and well worth a visit if you're ever in town!
And then it was time to leave to begin the road trip around the north island. We had some tips of where to go and what to do, but we couldn't fit everywhere in so set off with a rough idea of what we could manage.
After an extended photo call with the children as Nikki collected the rental car we said our sad goodbyes. The girls were so sad to be leaving their new friends, each one of the boys has their own unique personality and traits that appeal to the girls so there wasn't too much pairing up or anyone being left out which was really nice. They were such lovely boys and I really enjoyed getting to know them a bit more after so many years of seeing them change on Facebook. For me, having such an extended time with one of my most treasured friends was truly special. I loved that our children got along so well and hope that we will be able to meet up one day again, in less than ten years!!
We set off northeast-wards stopping at the Rimutaka Hill's soldier lookout memorial. The memorial commemorates the 60,000 First World War Troops who made the journey from the military camp in Featherstone to Wellington.
We arrived in Hastings but finding no accommodation to suit our needs (or budget!) we headed out to the town of Havelock North, and found the wonderful Wine Country Lodge. It was great and we were close to Splash Planet which we had on our agenda after the boys in Wellington had raved about their recent trip there.
We got up and headed off to New Zealand's only water park and so it seemed, had the rest of the population of New Zealand!! The queue was HUGE!!! Snaking across the car park it was not quite what we had expected but factoring in the heatwave that we were enjoying plus the end of the school holidays it's shouldn't have been a surprise.
Luckily we managed to find a picnic table and dumped the bags before heading off to find the lazy river. We love water parks. And whilst this may have been on the smaller side to those we have visited previously, it still gave us a full day's entertainment with its other attractions such as the go kart track, crazy golf and kids rides.
The slides were good enough for the girls and the lazy river easy to float around in and despite the quantity of people waiting to get in it didn't feel overcrowded.
We returned home exhausted but having enjoyed our day out.
The next day we headed to the town of Napier. We had heard about it being the "Art Deco" capital of NZ and we were keen to find out why. We stopped first at the Bluff Hill Lookout, taking in the views over the harbour. It was incredible seeing the busy life below and the changing coloursm of the water out to sea.
We returned to Marine Parade and I loved walking through the town seeing all the different buildings. It truly has earned its reputation as the art deco capital as the buildings are amazing! It's almost how I imagine Miami might have looked, pastel colours and the unmistakeable art deco designs. I drove everyone crazy trying to take pictures, none of which transferred to the screen as beautiful as they appeared in real life.
We headed off stopping at Cape Kidnappers hoping to find a beach with some evidence of a pirate-y history but instead found signs for the gannet colony. After discovering it was a several kilometre walk and that the colony is quite erm... fragrant, we decided that we aren't committed enough bird fans to warrant the trip. There were gannet safaris that drive you there but again we are not massive fans of birds so we decided to head back towards Havelock North. Along the way we stopped at one of the many fruit stalls by the side of the road. We got the best bag of plums and nectarines we have ever tasted for a fraction of the cost of the supermarkets. Divine.
We set off to find Ocean Beach which was quite a drive off the main route. After a long and winding road we came to a steep descent looking out over the sea. It was gorgeous and definitely worth the trip. We walked along away from the busier section and enjoyed watching the girls paddle as we sat.
We decided to stop in at Te Mata peak on our way back as it was close to our motel. The journey up was a little hairy as it wasn't the widest of winding steep roads but more than that other drivers kept hurtling around corners towards us at ridiculous speeds!!
We made it alive to the top and marveled at the view. Town to one aspect, beach and sea to another, forest over another view and then the most incredible mountain range view. It really was amazing with something to see at every angle - including launch pads for hang gliders!! Errrrr no thanks! There is literally nothing that could get me to jump off a mountain!!
Our journey continued as we decided to head to Rotorua, stopping off at Lake Taupo en route. This lake is actually a "caldera" - formed when the magma chamber of a volcano has emptied or erupted. The girls enjoyed swimming in the fresh water whilst I enjoyed watching the fascinating black swans swimming on the volcano lake. Such strange beauty and a total contrast to our white swans at home.
We continued on our journey and soon came across a sign for the Huka Falls. We are suckers for a waterfall so we decided to stop by and look. We were absolutely blown away by the sheer ferocity of this waterfall, although waterfall isn't exactly an accurate description, more like an angry smashing torrent of turquoise water! It's was spectacular to see the jewel like colour of the water and we watched the famous Huka Jet boat power it's way close to the mouth of the waterfall.
It was really something and reminded us all of the angry torrent of water that we saw in Murchison Falls in Uganda. That same smashing relentless path of water carving its way through rocks.
As we left we saw another sign advertising the "Craters of the moon" and so decided to take a look at this attraction. It was really strange as it's a geothermal park where plumes of steam are rising from the ground. We learnt the difference between fumaroles, craters and mud pools and what creates this steam.
It was amazing to get close up to them hearing the bubbling like a kettle ready to boil. It was so hot though both in the sunshine and downwind of the steam and after we completed the walk around we felt like lightly steamed vegetables!!
As we got closer to Rotarua we realised we could smell the town before we could see it. It has been known as "smelly/rotten egg sandwich town" and we could tell why! It was seriously pongy!! The whole town sits on a vast area of geothermal activity and the upshot of this is the smell of the hydrogen sulphide emissions.
We arrived in Rotarua and after a drive around anywhere showing a "vacancy" sign we were out of luck. Nowhere had availability for the four of us. We dashed into McDonalds in a torrential downpour to get on the wi-fry and try to find some accommodation. This time however we were hitting a brick wall. EVERYTHING was booked. We were stuck between travelling another hour on our journey which would be really inconvenient given everything we wanted to do was in the centre or paying an extortionate amount - five times over our budget for what was essentially a glorified motel.
Just as we were resigned to heading back to the car to extend our journey suddenly a new listing appeared, less than 300 yards from our position! And only a teeny bit over budget! With shaking hands I desperately clicked through the booking process and we were in!!
We hopped back in the car and arrived as the rainstorm continued to rage but we were in and dry. Phew! The smell was really starting to make us feel quite ill at this point but we were assured we would get used to it. It did seem to come in waves sometimes stronger and sometimes less noticeable but a constant presence nevertheless.
We headed out to a nearby park to soak our feet in the hot pools that Rotarua is famous for. There's places where you can pay to go and enjoy the "thermal spas" but you can also get just as good an experience for free in Kuirau Park. The water is really hot! Bordering on too hot to be honest but the girls happily kept their feet in and our skin felt all lovely and silky smooth when we took our legs out. It's so strange to see what this earth does all by itself and we have been blown away by some of our experiences and this is definitely one of them.
All around the park were bubbling mud pools and the girls were holding their noses talking about how these must have been the inspiration for the "bog of eternal stench" in the film Labyrinth that we love. It definitely seemed to be as the mud pools burped and trumped their eggy smells.
We also made the visit to Kerosene Creek which we had heard was a hot water waterfall not far from the town. We made the journey and found the stream making it way through the forest as people lounged about in its water, enjoying the warmth and silky smooth feeling of your skin afterwards.
Nikki and the girls got in the pool with the waterfall and despite being very busy they really enjoyed floating about. Nikki especially seemed to enter a trance-like state as he relaxed in the "people soup"!! He also explained how strange it was to dig your toes in to the gravelly bottom to have them reach even hotter ground or to be able to pick up hot stones off the bottom. It was so strange but equally so relaxing, like a weird natural jacuzzi in the forest.
On our final day in Rotarua we decided to visit Te Puia - where we could learn more about geothermal activity and understand the Maori culture.
We arrived and went straight into the welcoming show where we watched local Maori perform various activities, some demonstrating games that are played to strengthen hand/eye coordination or others for fun, we also heard a love song about a local legend and of course the famous Haka - synonymous with New Zealand's sporting prowess.
It was really fascinating to learn more and see how Maori use their faces with such expression. We loved walking around the centre for Maori skills where lessons are held for carving and weaving. It was incredible to watch bone being carved and we even saw a huge whale jawbone.
We ventured outside through the Kiwi house, finally managing to see one of these famous birds even if it was in captivity, and went on to watch the famous geyser at Te Puia - Pohuto. It was amazing seeing it spray high into the sky surrounded by steam and a really good lesson for the girls to understand how the earth's crust and layers all work.
We saw the Maori village and the hangi (underground oven) where Maori would wrap their food and place it in the hot earth to cook before making our way to the ubiquitous gift shop before hitting the road to our next destination.
We headed further north to Thames, a little town that would allow us to make some day trips to our "most wanted" destinations as well as remaining fairly to close to Auckland and the far north whilst we decided where to head next.
We immediately loved the town of Thames as we drove down its high street of eclectic shops and restaurants. We decided we needed a Chinese takeaway and as we waited we were suddenly deafened by the sound of a wailing air raid siren. We looked around panicked wondering what it could mean - our proximity at home to a high security prison hospital has a sound like this for escapees and we had also heard similar in Australia for a shark warning so what was it? An impeding earthquake? Tsunami? It was in fact the call to the volunteer firefighters in the area as an emergency call had been received. The siren goes off until enough volunteers arrive to send out one of the engines in response. I have to say though that it got my adrenaline going and I have never seen Darcy so frightened in all her life.
We headed home with our takeaway dissecting the information about air raid sirens and volunteer firefighters and so on and later headed to bed ready for our trip the following day.
We had been told about Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove by friends at home as a must see place on our travels so we made the drive over that way enjoying pretty quiet roads and the scenic journey.
We found the car park deserted, only to realise we'd parked in the overflow car park but no matter we made the short walk to the crowded section of hot water beach where people were digging or lounging in pools of their own creation. Nikki headed off to hire a spade as we started marking out our area to dig.
Hot Water Beach is pretty much just that. It's not the sea that's hot it's the water under the sand and running in a small stream into the sea. It's a thermal seam that runs under the beach and the closer you are to the seam the hotter it is. In fact the water that's free flowing on the sand is actually burning hot.
We started digging only to find we were in a cold spot. So we got a little closer and started digging. It was warm but not overly so but as we dug deeper we could feel the degrees rising. Soon our neighbours had had enough hot pool action and handed their pools over which we extended to our own. As the time ticked by we found the pools got hotter and hotter, whether the seam extends according to the tide or something I don't know but by the time we left our pool was too hot to get in!
We sat chatting to a Kiwi family on their own holiday to Hot Water Beach and about their own traveling experiences (pre children). It was like being in a weird communal sandy sauna! After a while of smoothing the hot sand into our skin and lightly broiling ourselves we too decided we had had enough and decided to move onto our next stop - Cathedral Cove.
We parked up in the car park and decided on taking the shuttle to the start of the trail. Cathedral Cove is only accessible on foot and we were all too happy to pay the small bus fare for us all after seeing the hill trek you have to take before the hike to the Cove even begins.
It's quite a walk but the views are spectacular. We made the mistake of heading down to the first cove as there's a few on the way. We thought "Gemstone Bay" sounded enticing and intriguing but after trotting down about a million steps we were pretty underwhelmed to find a small rocky inaccessible bay. We began the climb back up before continuing the walk on. The view was amazing and we came across some people heading back who reassured us that the trip was worthwhile!
Finally we began the climb down and WOW - it is worth it. A white sandy beach with looming white cliffs and the cathedral part with its huge hollowed out roof.
It was a public holiday and still school holidays so it was really busy and we were disappointed by the amount of scratched in graffiti on the walls of the cavern. Why do people feel the need to desecrate such incredible nature with carvings of their name or hearts or initials? It's bizarre.
We padded back to find a spot to sit as the girls happily paddled. The waves were tall though and smashing in so we warned them to stay shallow. Similarly we saw several people with jellyfish stings which we hadn't expected in New Zealand!
It was wonderful looking around at this amazing beach and it's location but it's popularity is its own undoing and the walk back was definitely on all of our minds!
After a few hours we decided to head back and prepared ourselves for the walk. As we slowly made our way to the bus stop we were gobsmacked to see three people undertaking the walk to the beach with pushchairs and one woman wheeling a suitcase! If you ever make the trip please don't think it's suitable for such things! There's a very small staircase at the end and it's steep in places and there really should be advisory notices that such things aren't really suitable and that there's no water to fill up bottles anywhere along the way or on the beach itself. It was scorching hot and we treated ourselves to an ice cream as we made it back to the start.
We drove back to Thames along the meandering hill route and all agreed that it had been a great day and that Hot Water Beach is truly a remarkable place along with Cathedral Cove.
The next day we made our way to Auckland where we had a couple of days before leaving New Zealand. We had hoped to make it further north on the North Island, I really wanted to visit ninety mile beach and other areas but we just ran out of time. New Zealand is really just an incredible country given its diminutive size as it has so many incredible places to visit.
We took the time in Auckland to see some sights and wander the city. We spent a day at the Auckland museum which was just brilliant. We particularly enjoyed the war rooms and memorial at the top, and learnt so much about the First and Second World Wars. We even learned about how it was a New Zealander who led the Battle of Britain - Sir Keith Park. So interesting!
The girls reallly enjoyed it and it has made me realise how we need to visit more of our own British museums and make more day trips for such outings. The girls are always so engaged and Nikki and I always end up learning something as well!!
Our time in New Zealand was over and it had been an incredibly memorable part of our trip. We had experienced so much, enjoyed so much of it with Granny and Bayley, the girls made new friends and we saw (and felt) the Earth's very own nature at work. It's so very far away from the UK but for all of us, we could recognise why it so appealing to the ex-pats who've headed down under. It's really incomparable to anywhere else we've been for nature, scenery and experiences. We're off to Fiji next, somewhere we fully expect to be a tropical paradise for some much needed rest and relaxation after our epic adventure in NZ!